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New Zealand is changing the rules: Start dumping your tobacco stocks now

If you follow public health news, be careful your jaw doesn’t hit the floor. Last month, the government of New Zealand submitted a bill to Parliament that aims to end the tobacco epidemic. If it passes (and there is confidence it will), New Zealand will have, by far, the most comprehensive tobacco endgame policy in history.

The bill overhauls a number of tobacco policies and is quite long and complex, so we’ll break down the endgame portion here. But first, a little history behind this bill.

One unique aspect of New Zealand’s anti-tobacco efforts is the leadership role taken by the Maori community. Like many marginalized groups globally, the Maori suffer disproportionately from tobacco products, exacerbating other societal inequities. Maori leaders were front and center in the vision, planning and research of New Zealand’s tobacco endgame initiative. Such community buy-in up front is one of the reasons New Zealand will set the new standard in tobacco policy globally.

In 2010, New Zealand was the first of the so-called ASPIRE countries, setting the ambitious and admirable goal of reaching less than 5% smoking prevalence by 2025. They then got busy amping up their existing (and already excellent) policies on smokefree air, taxation, package warnings, etc. New Zealand’s tobacco use prevalence, already low in 2010 by global standards, went steadily down. But just a few years ago, researchers realized that it wasn’t dropping fast enough to get below 5% by 2025.

There have been many countries that have set ambitious tobacco use prevalence goals over the years (including the U.S.), but then found them unachievable and either gave up or changed the goal. But this is where New Zealand is different: rather than move the goal posts, they changed their strategy.

So what’s so special about New Zealand’s bill? Three policies that have never been done at the national level:

1.) Tobacco-Free Generation (TFG). No person born on or after 1 January 2009 can ever be legally sold tobacco products. Only two cities – Balanga City in the Philippines and Brookline, Massachusetts have passed such a policy. Balanga City’s TFG law is on hold pending a lawsuit. Brookline’s came into effect last year, despite an ongoing lawsuit.

2.) Drastic (i.e., 95% according to some insiders) reduction in the number of tobacco retailers. The access to tobacco for people born before 2009 will be significantly reduced.

3.) Reduction in nicotine in cigarettes to below addictive levels (similar to the Biden administration’s announcement in June 2022). Cigarettes will no longer be addictive, and therefore easier to give up.

These policy proposals have not gone unnoticed outside New Zealand.

Citing Kiwi plans, governments in Singapore, Malaysia, Ireland and Denmark have announced that they will be investigating these policies, especially TFG. Malaysia has a TFG bill in parliament right now, and Denmark is apparently drafting one. Public health coalitions in several other countries, most with some government support, are also pushing for TFG.

And the public is with them. Polls have recently been taken in three countries considering TFG. The question was asked in slightly different ways, but the results were astounding. Irish in favor – 75%, Spanish – 84%, French – 86%! Keep in mind, France and Spain have smoking prevalence rates of over 20%, so a significant number of people who smoke want TFG. And that makes sense; no one wants their kids to smoke.

Look for the New Zealand bill to become law in the next few months. And then look for a new conversation about the tobacco epidemic and what can be done to end it.